Sell Your Books the Old-Fashioned Way

Many years ago, an old man and equally old horse were plowing a field in south Alabama, when a dusty sedan, with Department of Agriculture lettered on the side pulled to a stop just ahead of them.  A young man jumped from the car and ran up to the old farmer, who kept the plow moving as if nothing unusual was happening.  The young man shouted, “Stop, I’m from the Department of Agriculture, and I know some new ways to farm that will help you.”

Without slowing or deviating from the furrow he was plowing, the old man looked at the young man and said, “Son, I’m not going to stop.  I don’t need to hear what you have to say.  I already know how to farm better than I do.”

Like that old farmer, I know how to sell books better than I have been.   I don’t know how to sell a million books in a month, but I know that giving away 500,000 won’t do it.  We have been told that if we give away books for three days and then go back to our regular price on the fourth day, an algorithm will kick in, and we will sell a lot of books.

I’ve been in sales for almost forty-five years.  I’ve studied sales.  I’ve been successful at sales.  I know more sales techniques than I could use in three lifetimes.  And, in accumulating that knowledge, I’ve learned two things that apply directly to the problem at hand—selling books.

First: Giving away your product is not a way to be successful in sales, no matter what product you’re selling.

Second: An algorithm is an effective method expressed as a finite list of well-defined instructions for calculating a function.  An algorithm is not a sales technique or marketing plan.

Thousands of us have listened to the self-publishing, urban legend that states—the way to sell your Kindle book is give it away for free for three days and on fourth day sell it at the regular price and you’ll be a successful author.  So thousands, probably tens of thousands of us tried it.  I gave away over 2,000 copies of Fourth and Forever and sold 58 copies at $2.99.

There’s something about the ego that explains personal failure this way.  “Well, it worked for everyone else.  You must have pissed off the gods of sales.”  As stupid as that sounds, we believe it.  Want to know how dumb that whole concept is?  Take it out of the book business and apply it to something else—say the car business.

Imagine for a moment that you and I meet with Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of both Nissan and Nissan-Renault Alliance.  In our meeting with Carlos we explain, “We have a plan that will insure your success as a car manufacturer.  Here’s how it works.  Next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, you give away a new car to everyone who wants one.  Then on Thursday, stop giving away cars and sell every car at full sticker price.  What do you think of that Carlos?”

Just before I began writing this bog post, I visited my Kindle Direct Publishing Dashboard and raised the price of each of my four books from $2.99 to $4.99.  Now, there’s a marketing plan I can believe in.

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22 Responses to Sell Your Books the Old-Fashioned Way

  1. Javier
    Twitter:
    says:

    Ironically, I just listed 3 copies to give away, but I’ve withheld from doing the “get it for free”. After all, I didn’t just pound away over 255,000 to simple gift it. I firmly believe that the story will find its way into the hands of a reader who won’t mind parting with $4.99 for a wealth of memories that will put a smile on their faces. I don’t know about everyone’s books, but when it comes to “4th and Forever”, Bert, you can name your price. Thank you for the article, it’s helped me believe I’m right in not putting up my novel for free. I think Patience is the key.

  2. Jo VonBargen
    Twitter:
    says:

    I decided some weeks ago to do something counter-intuitive and upped the price on three of my books, thinking at least if they didn’t sell I could tell myself people aren’t buying because times are tight and they can’t spend that much. Lo and behold, I’ve sold three times as many! I’ll be damned if I understand it, but I’ll take that any day of the week. Of course, you know the gods of greed are whispering in my ear to tick them up another notch, but my luck ain’t that historically spectacular. Even counter-intuitive action has its workable limits, so I’m good. And thankful.

  3. Winslow Eliot
    Twitter:
    says:

    I so needed to read this! I’ve been mystified by the extraordinary concept that not only are professional authors now required to pay to write their books, but they’re required to give them away too? I thought when I’d left traditional publishing behind I was stepping into something more noble than that – artistic freedom is one thing, but beinq required to pay to play is something else entirely. Especially in our culture. It simply does not compute, and you explain it well.

    • Bert
      Twitter:
      says:

      Thanks Winslow,
      Praise from one of my heroes isn’t something I hear every day. I’m honored.
      I believe that writing is the most noble of professions and writers must never trade even one drop of the nobility of our art for a single book sale – that price is too high.
      Bert

  4. Patrick Fox
    Twitter:
    says:

    Good to hear the other side of this story. I’ve been considering a free promo on my book because it’s not selling well despite the all five star reviews. However, there’s always been a nagging doubt at the back of my mind about it. I can’t see why a book would get a sales boost after coming off free, it doesn’t make sense.

    Think I’ll stick with charging the almost free price of $2.99.

  5. I did not participate in the giveaways or free books because it never made sense to me. Something has to be accorded a value before getting it for free truly represents a prize. In fact, I’m curious if all those thousands of books given away are now inhibiting sales, and if so for how long. I love books, but even I have experienced this tsunami of titles being thrown at me as a reason to just get further out of the water and up the beach to have a chance to dry off.

    • Bert
      Twitter:
      says:

      I gave away my book and bought Stephen’s, Caleb’s, Kathy’s, and yours. That took ALL of the “benefit” out of the free program –

  6. Pingback: Sell Your Books the Old-Fashioned Way | Chazz Writes

  7. L.Leander
    Twitter:
    says:

    Thank you for this insightful post. I am just getting ready to publish my first novel on Amazon and this very question has been nagging me. While I have been told over and over that the free days will turn into sales I can’t seem to wrap my head around it. I have always paid for the many thousands of books I read (or checked them out at the library) but I haven’t expected them to be handed to me at no cost. I understand how hard it is to write. Do we now have to rip every last vestige of honor away from authors? I don’t think so!

  8. Bert – you’ve hit it right on. Unfortunately I’m committed to one more try with a group of other authors or I would have sworn off it already. I’ve tried 5 times and of those 5 had only one “success” – selling over a hundred fifty books afterwards. However two weeks later – less sales than before.

    I think of this experience of Indie publishing as a roller-coaster ride, which gives me some comfort, but in real life – after the roller coaster ride – things just settle back into “normal” – whatever that is.

    • Bert
      Twitter:
      says:

      Kathy,
      When I was in sales I used to pray to find prospects as gullible as us writers. That never happened either. It’s probably just as well – if I’d found them I’d be laying on a beach right now instead of “talking” to you and all the other great writers I’ve met on this trip – not to mention, spending time, when I can, writing – the activity that ties it all together for me.
      Bert

  9. Chris James
    Twitter:
    says:

    Thanks for a reassuring post, Bert. For about a year now I’ve had a creeping feeling that I’m doing something wrong by refusing to give my books away, so it’s been good for me to read this. In the back of my head is a famous quote – can’t remember who said it – that: “Anything free is worth what you pay for it.”
    Chris James recently posted…Reasons why you’ve gotta love living in Poland, No. 94My Profile

  10. Renee Pawlish
    Twitter:
    says:

    I agree that giving books away has lost its luster, but I have to say that it’s been at least moderately successful for me. My sales have increased each month since I enrolled in KDP Select (I don’t offer all my books for free) and a few days ago, I did a two-day freebie of Nephilim Genesis of Evil. I gave away over 10,000 free copies and in the two days since then it’s sold 50 copies at $4.99 and borrowed 100 times. Will this last? Who knows, although the book continues to climb the charts and is now on three bestseller lists. Is this the phenomenal success that some had in the first few months of KDP? Not at all, but I’m okay with it. My take is free can work, but it shouldn’t be the only means of trying to sell books. And genre has a lot to do with it as well. Just my take. Thanks Bert for sharing your thoughts on this issue.

    • Bert
      Twitter:
      says:

      Renee,
      Yours is the best “current” success story I’ve heard. Even at the height of the free book “gold rush” I attribute less than 100 sales to freebies and if that is accurate, I have to ask, “How do I measure the long-term effect on sales of giving away 1,700 hundred copies of Fourth and Forever?” I don’t think it will help.
      Bottom line – I’m pleased for your success, my friend, and I won’t be giving away any more books – at least not Kindle books. I’m rediscovering the power of giving away a paperback by actually putting it in the hands of someone I know. The look that crosses their face is most gratifying.
      Bert

  11. I started out by charging $15.99 for trade paperback version of my first novel, with eBook files at $4.99. I was swayed by those who say that it is important to value what you have produced. I still agree with these ideas. I buy a lot of .99 cent books and seldom read them. If I pay a reasonable amount for a book, I usually read it. Sales are fairly flat. That has a lot to do with learning about the new medium. I have given away a lot of books to friends and colleagues, and even parishioners in a very narrow range. Not sure how I will do that part in the future. I may be more focused on who gets the free books. Out of 20 books out there, I have gotten one review and a few attaboys. The review was wonderful. Five percent would be a reasonable return in traditional marketing, I think. Tnx for a thoughtful post.
    Jon Rieley-Goddard recently posted…Capital crimes – big letters of the lawMy Profile

  12. andyholloman
    Twitter:
    says:

    hey bert, interesting stuff – my take on KDP and freebie’s was VERY VERY different as a participant back when it first got going…i know of 10 or so writers like me who took advantage of giving away books as there was NO DOUBT about it, KDP boosted my sales…one close friend may multiple thousands of dollars in profits in one month, all do the the rise in rankings that she experienced post-KDP… i would counter that your sales success with products other than books may not translate as well in this internet, Amazon-based selling world. I also come from a “live” sales background where the one-on-one, phone selling, people skills stuff translates to sales success. Giving away books via KDP has DEFINITELY changed since april/may and now is not at all what it was earlier in the year, very little change to one’s ranking after coming off freebie days thus very little boost in sales, but there is some boost! I would have gladly given away 10’s of thousands of more books via KDP freebie days earlier this year had i had the chance…… no doubt there will be other oppt’ys and systems that will help folks like me in the future (one title out since 12/2011) I just hope it is as effective as KDP use to be

  13. Viv
    Twitter:
    says:

    Very much my thoughts, Bert. I have not signed up for Select and don’t intend to. People who download free books very often neither read nor value them; I have heard of plenty of writers finding they get a swathe of nasty 1* reviews popping up after a few binge.
    Viv recently posted…Monday Meditation: Honeysuckle for deepening the connection with natureMy Profile

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